An oversimplified characterization of the movie world is that mainstream movies contain simple, easy-to-digest stories, whereas independent films challenge their audiences with plots that sometimes defy explanation. Moonlight is one of those movies — it seems simple on the surface, but becomes more and more complex the further it goes along.
At first glance, it’s a story about the struggles of everyday life in inner city Miami. Juan (Mahershala Ali), who works as a drug dealer, comes upon a scared 10-year-old named Chiron (Alex Hibbert) hiding from bullies in the Liberty City projects. Realizing Chiron, who goes by the nickname “Little,” has a far from ideal home life with a drug addict for a mother (Naomie Harris), Juan and his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae), look out for Little, giving him a place to stay and food to eat whenever he needs it.
The irony of a drug dealer helping the son of a drug addict whom he supplies is just the first of many complicated aspects of Moonlight. Writer/director Barry Jenkins, working from an original story by Tarell McRaney, shifts the focus constantly. The film is broken up into three sections, trailing Chiron as he changes from a boy to a teenager to a man, tracking how the people around him influence him and his decisions.
One of the biggest keys to the film’s success is an idea you would never find in a mainstream movie: Jenkins never allows the audience to get comfortable. This isn’t just because he’s telling a story about a section of society whose lives are rarely covered in this much detail, although that is important. He also leaves multiple subplots unresolved, moving away from various, seemingly crucial characters with only subtle hints as to what has happened to them.
What is at first frustrating becomes eye-opening, as you start to realize that, instead of a specific story about one man, Jenkins is telling a larger symbolic tale about masculinity, and especially African-American masculinity. Chiron is both the embodiment and antithesis of a black man coming from his circumstances, and these contradictions only make him a richer and fuller character.
The acting on the whole in Moonlight is remarkable. Each actor’s portrayal of Chiron brings something different to the table, but it’s Trevante Rhodes' turn as the adult Chiron that leaves the most indelible impression. Ali brings much pathos to his role, Harris is searing and heartbreaking as the mother, and Monae, in her first non-voiceover part, is magnetic as Teresa. Jharrel Jerome, who plays the 16-year-old Kevin, Chiron’s friend, is also notable, as he elevates the part into something particularly memorable.
Moonlight is a stunning and transporting experience, telling a story about life and love that is relatable even if you’ve never come close to the realities of the characters in the film.
Moonlight is playing locally at Santikos Bijou Cinema Bistro November 10-11.